On February 6th 1937, John Steinbeck’s novella Of ‘Mice and Men’, the story of the bond between two migrant workers, was published. It is a novella telling the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in California.
The title is taken from Robert Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’, which read: "The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley." (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry). The significance of the title is in the futility of planning and the inevitability of failure if the odds are stacked against you – as they are for George and Lennie. The novel is a condemnation of the American Dream but it also reflects on some of the principles of the American Constitution. All men are not created equal in the eyes of humanity, and characters like Lennie and George will always be judged by their weaknesses rather than their strengths.
Whilst required reading in many schools it has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity and what some consider offensive and racist language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century. However, scholars like Thomas Scarseth have fought to protect the book by citing its literary value. According to Scarseth "in true great literature the pain of life is transmuted into the beauty of Art", thus it is through controversy that people can begin to appreciate the message.
Ultimately, the story is a parable about what it means to be human. The main characters dream of owning their own ranch, and it chronicles the obstacles that stand in the way of that ambition to reveal the nature of dreams, dignity, loneliness, and sacrifice. Ultimately, Lennie, the mentally handicapped giant who makes George’s dream of owning his own ranch worthwhile, ironically becomes the greatest obstacle to achieving that dream.
Steinbeck himself was aware how controversial his work was but wanted to show that loneliness is created and sustained by the inhuman way that people can treat others. He said "Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love". Who can argue with that?